December 2, 1862 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside proposed a plan to move his Federal Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia continued strengthening its defenses west of Fredericksburg.
As December began, Lee now had his entire army at his disposal, with Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps massing to Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s right. Jackson’s men had endured one of the most grueling marches of the war, moving 175 miles from Winchester to Fredericksburg in 12 days. Many men lacked adequate clothing or footwear; one in six were barefoot. Nevertheless, morale in the Confederate army was high.
Jackson complained about the army’s position to Lee. He argued that while the Confederates could easily repel the Federals when they tried crossing the river, nothing could be gained from such a victory. The Confederates could not counterattack from where they were, leaving them in a purely defensive posture while the Federals could regroup and try attacking again and again. As Jackson told Major General D.H. Hill, “We will whip the enemy but gain no fruits of victory.”
Lee rejected Jackson’s urgings to move to the North Anna River, where they had a better chance to counterattack. Lee reasoned that merely stopping Burnside’s superior army would be enough of a victory for the time being. He had 78,511 officers and men to face Burnside’s 116,683 Federals across the Rappahannock. This threatened to become the largest confrontation of the war to date.
Fredericksburg residents who had not already left town began rushing to do so. They took trains to Richmond and sent their slaves farther south to prevent either escape or Federal confiscation. On the 4th, skirmishing broke out between Federals and D.H. Hill’s men near Port Royal, about 20 miles downriver (east) from Fredericksburg. This marked the Confederates’ easternmost position.
Burnside met with his top commanders and shared his plan to cross the army at Skinker’s Neck, about 15 miles downstream from Fredericksburg. Burnside contended that the Confederates were not guarding that ford, and if the Federals could secure it, they could set up a supply base at Port Royal and enjoy gunboat support from the Potomac Flotilla. All but Major General Joseph Hooker supported the plan.
Burnside issued orders for the plan to proceed, unaware that Jackson’s corps had arrived and D.H. Hill now held both Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck. Hill’s Confederates waited in rifle pits supported by artillery to stop gunboats from moving upriver to aid the Federal army. The Confederates exchanged fire with the gunboats on the 4th and forced them to withdraw that night.
Federal infantry moved out on the morning of the 5th, marching through rain that turned to sleet and snow. As they struggled to advance through freezing winds, Burnside finally realized that the Confederate line extended from Fredericksburg to Port Royal. He now saw no alternative other than crossing the river directly in front of Fredericksburg in the hopes that Lee would not expect such a bold move.
Burnside’s Grand Division commanders (Major Generals Hooker, Edwin V. Sumner, and William B. Franklin) received orders on the 9th to supply their men with three days’ cooked rations and 60 rounds of ammunition. The pontoons would be brought up, and engineers would build six bridges across the river on the 11th. The troops would then cross, landing in front of and below Fredericksburg. They were not to stop to aid wounded comrades. Musicians were to be armed as well.
Burnside explained the plan to his commanders at a 12 p.m. council of war. He said that since Confederates were lined up all the way to Port Royal, Lee must have divided his forces, leaving him vulnerable at Fredericksburg. Burnside believed the town could be taken because Lee “did not expect us to cross here.” Once the Federals crossed the river, they could defeat the small portion of Lee’s army outside the town and then turn to defeat what Burnside thought was the main Confederate force downriver.
The commanders had reservations, but Burnside declared that “all the influence on the face of the earth” would not change his mind. They all finally agreed to the plan after five hours of discussion. When the Grand Division commanders imparted the orders to their subordinates, many openly questioned the plan. Major General Darius N. Couch told Sumner that it would not work, and when Burnside learned of this, he directed Sumner to “say to General Couch that he is mistaken.”
Burnside wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck late that night:
“I think now that the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than in any other part of the river. The commanders of Grand Divisions coincide with me in this opinion, and I have accordingly ordered the movement… We hope to succeed.”
Burnside sought President Abraham Lincoln’s endorsement, writing Halleck, “The movement is so important that I feel anxious to be fortified by his approval. Please answer.” Lincoln did not respond.
West of Fredericksburg, Lee continued strengthening his defenses. This included building a road to connect all the troops on the various hills overlooking the town and installing telegraphic communications. President Jefferson Davis wrote Lee, “You will know best when it will be proper to make a masked movement to the rear, should circumstances require you to move nearer to Richmond.”
Burnside called a meeting with Sumner and all his corps and division commanders to confront those who opposed his plan. Many objected to the idea of crossing a river in the face of the enemy, entering a hostile town, and then charging up steep hills to attack defenses. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding a division in Couch’s corps, was particularly vocal.
Burnside singled out Hancock for his criticisms and demanded obedience. Hancock explained that his dissent was not personal and pledged to obey Burnside’s orders to the death. Couch then declared that he would put forth twice the effort he had ever given in combat before. Major General William French, commanding another division in Couch’s corps, broke the tension with some light humor.
Burnside reiterated that he had not wanted to be army commander, but since he was in charge, “Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with your advice and hearty service.” Burnside explained that there was more to the plan than simply storming into the town and up the hills. Federal gunboats were firing on Confederates at Port Royal while Federal troops built a false road to Skinker’s Neck to deceive the Confederates into thinking they would cross there. All commanders agreed to do their duty as ordered.
Officers confirmed that everything was ready for the advance. An enormous Federal supply train assembled on Stafford Heights, ready to cross with the army and supply the men once they secured the town and drove the Confederates off.
A lady from Falmouth relayed to the Confederates that the Federals were collecting large quantities of rations and ammunition, indicating that they would be moving very soon. The Confederates placed artillery on the hills beyond Fredericksburg, and sharpshooters came up to fire on the engineers as soon as they started building the pontoon bridges. Lee’s telegraph network could relay orders to move his men to wherever needed.
That night, a Federal band set up on the banks of the Rappahannock and played music for both armies. Songs included “Hail, Columbia,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Yankee Doodle,” and even “Dixie.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17727; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 237-39; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 782; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 5-6, 25-26; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 234; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5018; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 292, 294; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 539